Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Mozambique is a country of contrasts. It's also the only African country I've ever spent much time in. We begged to see "the real Mozambique", so my sister Cheryl booked us first on a tourist bus from Maputo, the capital, to a little fishing village in the Bazaruto Archipelago called Vilanculos. We rose at 2:30 am in time to pick up our bus tickets and get us on bus for 4am. We spent 11 hours eating our small breakfasts and chatting with the other NGO volunteers who were also on the bus. The contant ring of cell phones reminded us that we were amongst many of Moz's movers and shakers.

In Vilanculos, we met up with Cheryl and became a 4-some. Interestingly, no one ever immediately thought we were sisters, despite our common looks. It didn't help that 2 of the 4 of us spoke fluent portuguese, the local language. Cheryl has been living in Moz for 3 1/2 years with her family, while Kathy has spent lots of time travelling throughout and studying in Brazil, where she uses portuguese extensively. Our primary reason to be in Vilanculos was to soak up the beach vibe. While not exactly touristy, Vilanculos is located right on a beautiful while sand beach and has sufficient amenities to keep adventurous tourists happy.

We indulged in a full day snorkeling trip by dhow (old-fashioned sailboat) to Bazaruto National Park, just off the coast. The snorkelling provided plenty of fish viewing in the corals just off the shore, and was sufficient for our snorkelling abilities. Lots of yellow, blue, white, and striped fish of all sizes, not to mention eels and corals of all colours. The 3 local guys cooked a hearty fish bar-b-q for us and seemed to enjoy the reveral of usual roles. Of course, they were shocked that we were travelling alone as women, and did ask us where our husbands and children were, and even offered to find/be new husbands if we were looking for any!

After a couple of days relaxing and eating great seafood, we woke up early again to meet the 3:30 am bus to Beira. This time we took the local bus, and it proved highly entertaining. There weren't enough seats for everybody, so the tourists got the real seats, while the locals piled into the aisles. There were bags stuffed under all the seats full of produce and goods, so no one had any leg room. After about an hour of driving, we had to stop for another hour while we waited for the bus driver's brother to bring him his wallet. (It seems he needed the money to ensure he could bribe his way through any potential roadblockages, or this is what the locals told us.) At one point, a person with a live rooster sat down next to me for a while. The rooster was quiet and mostly just sat in the basket. While most of Moz played little music, we did get to listen to some local pop music on the bus at top volume, so loud all you could hear really was the beat pounding away. We endured, just barely, and were exceedingly grateful to see my brother-in-law Steve pick us up and deliver us safely to their lovely compounded house in Beira.

While working for MCC, a Mennonite NGO, my sister's family nonetheless has a full time cook/cleaner and night guard. Each day they have their clothing laundered and ironed (including their underwear, to kill pinworms) and have a hot lunch prepared for their family. Everyone comes home for lunch each day. In fact, the kids attend school from 7:30am-12:30pm. Other kids attend in the afternoon, with different teachers, so more kids can share the same building.

We slept one night with my sister's family before heading out. This time we had our own large SUV which Cheryl drove with ease, despite the MANY potholes. Moz has only a few roads throughout the country, but even those are mostly reduced to one lane with lots of on-going construction and branches on the road to designate this. I've never really liked SUV's and find them generally silly in Canada, but they certainly were necessary in Moz! We drove about 6 hours to the Zimbabwe border, from the dry, sandy beach to the lush, green mountains. We arrived at Quinta de Fronteria, an old Portuguese estate that had fallen into ruin since independence in 1976, and was only recently being renovated and turned into vacation lodges for weathy Zimbabweins. We rented one cabana (for my "princess sisters" - Kathy and Lois) with a bed and indoor bathroom, and my outdoor sister, Cheryl, and I slept in a tent. We also had an outdoor kitchen at our disposal, which was a fire pit, complete with a firestarter. Our firestarter got up at 5 am each morning, cut wood for us, made a cooking fire, and put the kettle on for coffee. The first morning Kathy even woke up listening to them work and then delivered us coffee in bed (i.e. tent). Who says this isn't luxury living!

The rest of the weekend, we cooked our own food that we had brought, and spent lots of time relaxing together. One day we trekked down to the village through gorgeous, lush fields of large, dense palm trees and watched the villagers working in the fields using rudimentary hoes and shovels. There was not a tractor or horse to be seen anywhere throughout Moz, and people really worked hard in their fields. It poured rain on us, and we were fortunate not to slip in the red, shiny mud. The last morning we visited the old plantation house, which was really just a shell in ruins. The previous owner's son bought the old grounds several years ago, but it appears that more progress is being made on the landscaping and flowers around the property than the buildings themselves. It will be interesting to see how the property looks when it's all restored, but I wouldn't expect it to me for another 10-20 years, judging from the progress so far.

For our final weekend in Moz, we chose to spend it with my sister's family at their favourite vacation spot - a rustic vacation home on the beach about an hour outside of Beira. The house we had reserved had burned down a week earlier and they hadn't notified us, but since Cheryl knew the owner from her kids' school, he agreed to give us a larger, more modern house instead. This one was more like an Ontario cottage, and roomy enough for us, except for the kids sleeping outside in a tent. We lay in our beds listening to the waves lapping the shore, just steps away.

We talked, we ate, and we enjoyed the beautiful nature around us. Each morning we bobbed in the waves and laughed at the antics of the silly crabs scarmbing around the beach. I taught my 8 year old niece Katie how to make friendship bracelets, and I watched my 10 year old nephew Peter fly his remote control helecopter (a gift from me) around the cottage. Each night we wandered up the beach to the resort restauant and feasted on local seafood specialties. I enjoyed a curried crab dish (tasty, but hard work to get the meat out) and grilled octopus. As everywhere in Moz, it was early to bed and early to rise, with the sun and the moon.

Sadly we packed up one last time, made one final stop at the market for Lois to complete her souvenir shopping, and headed to the Beira airport. We had a long uneventful flight back to Toronto, stretched out over close to 2 days. We did make a put stop in Jo-burg once more for a few hours to meet friends of Cheryl's who picked us up, served dinner to us at their house, and delivered us back to the airport. It was a pleasant delay and chance to stretch our legs. By now, all of were thinking of home and ready to be in our own beds again.

Travelling as a 4-some with sisters who I really had never ever spent so much time with was easier than I thought it would be. Everyone had thought we were crazy to commit so much time together with family, but we enjoyed telling childhood stories from various perspectives and catching each other up on our real lives in the last 2 decades since we'd each left home. We have an astounding commonality amongst us all, yet very different personalities. In many ways I am most like my older sister Kathy in personality than I'd realized, who chose to be a professor, travel lots for work, and skip the mother thing. But then again, I like the human interactions of managing staff and family life like my sister Lois, and have a frugal, adventurous commonality with my sister Cheryl. They seem like mirrors to me, showing me parts of myself, and gently showing me the origins of that part of myself that I can't see so clearly on my own. I guess you could say it was a good sign that early on we started talking about our next trip. Clearly influenced by the Mama Mia movie we watched on the plane ride over, we want to try to get to Greece for our next sister trip in a couple of years. Again no husbands or children. It's a country we'd all love to see, but none of us have ever been there. Says a lot for a travelling crowd like us!

Monday, November 23, 2009

South Africa

My first visit to the African continent (not counting a week in the Sinai 25 years ago) was completed with the accompanyment of my 3 sisters. For those of you without sisters, you don't know what you're missing! My sister Lois flew to Toronto from Columbus, Ohio, and met up with myself and my older sister Kathy. We repacked together and got us all down to one carry-on bag each. No small feat for a 19 day journey!

After a 30 hour trip with a layover in the Amsterdam airport, we arrived safely in Johannesburg, or Jo'burg as it's affectionately called. We were greeted by our hotel taxi and safely escorted back to the hotel at midnight on a Saturday night. We were led through the gated community that surrounds the hotel compound, and past the high, barbed wire fences. Persons clearly are afraid for their personal security in this highly urbanized and affluent neighbourhood.

Despite our sleeping challenges, we awoke early and spent a jam-packed day on a tour of Soweto. We became immersed in the history and the stories of this township as we accompanied our guide to the Hector Pearson Museum to commemorate the student protest, Nelson Mandella's matchbox house his family was given post-apartheid, Winnie Mandella's house, and eventually the Apartheid Museum. The whole tour focused mostly on the work of Nelson Mandella and his role in bringing down the apartheid laws. We learned that many of these laws were really in effect only for a couple of decades, but were set up to give British and Africaans a leg up in the tight financial times post World World I.

The last thing we did was tour a Soweto shantytown. The one we visited was quite clean, organized, and safe, and had a volunteer guide show us around and inside one family's house. Donations given to him were handed over to the group's education and health fund. Basically, it was a community of shacks for persons waiting for the ANC to come through on their promise to give every black family in South Africa their own small house. They have already given 700,000, but many of the families we met have been waiting for up to 8 years for theirs. And there are even more illegal immigrants from Mozambique and Zimbabwe coming over every year hoping to also get houses, so the wait is endless. In the meantime, the children are going to school and the community is trying to keep the drugs and violence out, but it's tough. It's hard to imagine all shantytowns disappearing.

Early the next day, we were picked up by charter bus and delivered to Marc's Treehouse, a rustic safari experience for adventurers. We stayed just outside of the famous Kruger National Park in a private Big 3 (no cats) game reserve. Our first afternoon, we met our game drive guide, an engaging and experienced South Africa guy, who drove us around close to home and showed us lots of impala and interesting trees and plants. We socialized with the other adventurers over a family-style South Africa chicken "poike" (meat stew) and ended the evening around a campfire drinking cider. We reflected that the persons on the charter bus that we really liked all came to the treehouse, whereas the annoying tourists all went to the 5 star hotels. Like a self-selecting process of finding like-mided folks. We got the youngest, crowd mostly from Europe.

We slept that night in thatched huts (similar to the cabanas in Mexico), but off the ground to protect us from the wild beasts that like to wander around the reserve. The next morning we rose early and headed out in a large, open 4x4, with 6 other guests. By noon, we had already seen all 5 of the big 5 animals (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, rhino). Our guide, Toullie, told us this doesn't even happen once a year, so it was an extremely lucky morning for us. We got to watch 3 adolescent lion brothers relax in the sun not far away from us. We almost got to see a leopard take down an impala lunch, except that some noise tourists scared it back into the dense woods for the few minutes it took to kill it. Fortunately, he then dragged the slain impala out into the opening for us to watch him eat it, just feet ahead of us. The elephants and buffalo, and rhinos all schlumped around us, totally oblivious of us.

We also really enjoyed viewing the many smaller animals, like the giraffes, zebras, wildebeasts, kudoos, wart hogs, and many other birds and deer-like creatures that abounded everywhere. I imagined a barren wasteland, and was surprised to see so many animals in such a lush, treed setting, as well as the highly vegetated grasslands. I really appreciated the excellent telephoto lens on my camera, and was able to take some fantastic photos, which made it look like I was feeling the breath of these animals on me! I also really enjoyed taking the rear views of many animals that have exceptional hind markings, and am contemplating making some kind of "Asses of Africa" compilation.

We spent an entire day in the park, driving around from one recommendating citing spot to another. There's lots of comradary amongst the various guides and everyone tries to help each other get good spottings. It's surprising how low key touristy the park feels, given how well known it is and and the number of tourists travelling through. Another evening of poike, this time beef, and more campfire, and we all headed off early to bed. Searching for animals is hard work and exhausting!

The next morning, we woke up early for a 6am game walk. This time, we only joined Toullie and another couple, to keep it small and safe. We planned to drive for 10 minutes to a more populated area, but within 100 feet of the lodge, we had to stop, as there were 3 rhinos walking down the path towards our vehicle. We got out and walked slowly towards them. They were clearly interested in us, but didn't seem to be interested in attacking anything. We got within about 50 of them, and got good photos. Of course, we felt better knowing that not only was Toullie with us, but he had also brought his rifle with him and was prepared to shoot it, if necessary. Not sooner had the rhinos passed by when a herd of 8 cape buffalo strolled past us. The were almost close enough to touch, but again were determined to stay on the path, and so they just walked merrily by us.

In hind sight, we wished we had booked an extra couple of days at Kruger, as there was so much to see. The one animal we hadn't seen was hippos, and I could have watched zebras and giraffes all day. The feeling of wildness was so pervasive, and yet the natural order was in place and humans were just part of it.

With reluctance and joy combined, we boarded another charter bus and rode off. They attempted to show us the Blyde River Canyon, a deep canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon, but it was raining and all we could see was white clouds. As we drove out of the district, the sky started to clear and we could imagine what was behind the clouds. The layers of rock in the landscape were almost visible and the canyon walls rose up high on the horizon.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Two Months in TO

After 7 months of being on the road, I was ready to come home. Home to my bed and my own routine. Not to sit home and do nothing, but to settle into my home routine as stay-at-home mom/wife. A role I've never played before.

It's been rather fun. I wake up early with Adrian and spent time with him every morning getting him ready for school. He mostly grunts this early in the day, but still it's precious time. I'm back to making lunch for him every day. He likes this easy way again, and especially likes the little treats I pack in for him.

Once he's gone, I dive into my prostrations (I like to describe them as Buddhist burpees for cleansing the body and mind). I'm up to 600 per day, which takes close to 2 hours. I'm in the best shape I've been in decades, even better than when I was training for Black Belt in Tae Kwan Do last year.

Then my day is free. I thought I would fill it with going to the coffee shop and reading the newspaper every day, but really by 10 am I just want to get started with something. I've tackled lots of projects already in these last 2 months. The first one was playing travel agent for my 3 sisters as we planned our trip to Africa. I booked the hotels, planes, busses, and hotels. I wrestled a hotel payment to a South Africa hotel that wouldn't take credit card payment, and insisted on a wired bank payment ($30) instead. Now all there is to do is board the plane out of Toronto later today.

My next project involved a major writing project. I took on the documentation of "The Garden Cooperative Childcare Model", the little childcare centre we helped set up for Adrian when he was 2 years old. My friend Tonya found a little funding, and a place to put it on a website for all to see when it's finished. I've written 35 pages and it's at the editing stage now, to be followed up with consultation with other parents before it goes live. Stay tuned.

I also agreed to put my writing and organizing skills to use trying to get grants for Clear Sky. While working with an international group of persons who had been writing grants for the last few years, I managed to create a spreadsheet to organize all our efforts and also write some best practices for actually getting grants approved. It's begining to feel a little bit like work, but after all this time off I'm ready for a little work. It's a whole new area to explore, this social venture field, so it's exciting. I also submitted 2 grant proposals, and already found out that one was successful. Yippee! They're paying my way to go to a Social Enterprise conference in Toronto the week I return from Africa. I plan to schmooze up a storm, just for old time sake.

In between all this writing and computer stuff, whenever it wasn't raining, I worked on my backyard renovation project. This started with my digging up of the remaining grass growing in the back yard, and involved a major moving of soil to relevel the backyard. We were having drainage problems, as the old paths slowly sunk down lower and the garden soil slowly grew with annual compost deliveries. Now there's a lovely winding path of paving stones between the cedar deck and the garage at a raised level, and the everexpanding garden soil is back down where it belongs. I'm experimenting with 4 season garden harvests, and have peas, lettuce, and spinach growing beneath row covers and tomato hoop/plastic mini-greenhouses. I have straw spread around on all the soil as mulch, and Adrian commented that it smells like a farm!

I've enjoyed the family time this fall and have been taking Adrian to most of his (many!!!) hockey practices. He's been playing PeeWee AAA hockey with a new team, the Jr. Canadians, so now he's on the ice 6 times a week, often for several hours at a time, plus his dryland training. But he's doing really well and continues to love it, and still thinks he wants to look for a hockey scholarship for university some time in his future. We started renting to Josh (my 21 yo step-son) and 3 of his friends this summer, and he has become a regular at our house, particularly around meal times. I enjoy his company and am glad to have him around to share my love of travel stories. (He's been to Egypt, Israel, and California recently and planning for a big trip to South America next July.) The latest news says Jeremy (my 18 yo step-son) will be moving into the same house on the weekend, so we may finally have our whole family together for a while. It's perfect - they have their own space, but just a 5 minute bike ride away. And I think Richard really likes having a stay-at-home wife, as it means I cook more and better, and he has a bit more time to relax. It makes our overall stress level way down to have this time, and makes us wonder how we ever got along with me working! I have heard rumblings that he has some more house projects for me to work on when I get back from Africa, but I'll be ready for that.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Extra Time at Clear Sky

I was having so much fun at Clear Sky and they were having such a fun time learning from me that my teacher begged me to stay on. He said my post-meditation, post-travelling mentality combined with my can-do farming/gardening/building skills was just what we needed around there and he suggested I stay till the end of the summer.

Without much thought, I sent Richard and Adrian home on their own for the final road trip back. They later reported that not only did Richard successfully do the drive alone, but they even camped every night as we'd planned and drove 14 hour days. They didn't stop much or see much besides the view out the window, but it was a good bonding experience for them nonetheless. They also arrived home one day earlier than planned and surprised Josh and his friends, who'd been house sitting for 2 months, necessitating a quickly orchestrated clean up of the place.

But as for me, I moved into the main house and just worked harder, without my family around for distraction. I found more time for meditation, I sold more jams and jellies, and passed off the saskatoon berry product making to the next generation of learners - a true sign of letting go and making myself redundant. I got into tool organizing, and whipped the not-so-organized guys into shape.

And most of all, I just enjoyed being on my own. I hadn't realized how much I missed thinking of myself as a single person. Not necessarily single, but not first thinking of myself as a mother or a wife, or even as a manager. Everything implies "other". I like just being Linda. It reminds me that I truly feel satiated as a wife and mother, and the missing part is the Linda part. So I introspected, I slept alone, and I enjoyed this final month on my own again.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Summer at Clear Sky

We arrived at the Clear Sky Meditation and Study Centre to hugs from Richard and the rest of the gang. The members there have become my second family after my 2 month meditation retreat in the spring. Without further ado, we got to work and started helping out. Unlike my quiet solitary experience in February, this summer was spent with non-stop work. Much of July was spent in the kitchen cooking meals for upwards of 25 people, with Adrian as my primary assistant cook. Richard kicked into building mode and organized a 2 day building course to teach totally inexperienced men and women how to build a garden shed. They then applied this learning to building a 2 story root cellar. Everyone appreciated how talented and patient Richard was with all the new learners, and he enjoyed plaing boss and educator for a change.

Within a few weeks, the saskatoon berries began to ripen, and I became animated Saskatoon Girl! From never having seen this berry before to being its biggest advocate and marketer in a week flat. I started surfing the web and found countless saskatoon berry recipes, particularly jams and jellies. I spent a couple of weeks fighting public health beaurocracy and eventually got permission to sell these "value-added products" at the local farmer's markets. The picking season lasted barely 3 weeks, but we were out every day picking and then processing. All in all, we sold over $2000 worth of jams, jellies, juices, pies, and a quickly-famous chutney with this glorious wild berry. I even made a lovely cordial from this berry, and put in a gallon of wine for sipping next summer, just to test out its alcoholic properties.

Richard, Adrian, and I rented a lovely 3-room cabin just 10 minutes down the road, and were able to have a little family time at the end of each day. Sometimes we played guitar, sometimes we built campfires and ate marshmallows, and sometimes we just collapsed into bed, tired and happy.

Adrian had a wonderful summer alternating between hanging out with the adults, spending time alone in nature, and helping out with tasks like cooking and jam making. When nothing else was happening, he'd escape to the linen closet on the 3rd floor under the eves and play computer games on the internet or watch Corner Gas episodes. He calls it his best summer ever for seeing animals. While out on walks by himself and the dog he got to see 2 wolves track down a deer, a mother grizzley bear and 3 babies, and a daddy grizzley, not to mention countless deer, elk, mountain goats, mountain longhorned sheep, and some beautiful birds which he meticulously looked up in books and learned to identify. While not the most social time for him, he did get into the Cranbrook Skatepark weekly and hung out with the local kids a bit. And he learned that it's rude to wear his hat at the dining room table, something he had never quite learned at our house.

All in all, we enjoyed good family time, and despite the hard work, we were all relaxed and happy and had plenty of time outdoors. So it was a good summer.

US National Parks

The next leg of our 12 day trip took us through breath-taking scenery and into some of the real jewels of the American landscape. Not that the midwest was boring, but it's more familiar to me and therefore less interesting and beautiful. We carried on south till we came to the Grand Canyon, a place that loomed high in Adrian's imagination, he says, without a real vision. He just knew it was important, but didn't really know why. As we drove in from the east, we stopped in for our first views, just before sunset. The views took our words away, and we just stood there hugging each other and saying nothing. It was awesome, inspiring, and just plain beautiful. The next 2 hours were less than awesome as we looked for a campground with availabilities, one day before the July 4th weekend. All of the closest campgrounds are first-come-first-served, with no reservations. We got sent away by 2 campgrounds, and eventually got sent back to the farthest one, close to where we'd seen such lovely sites 2 hours before, feeling less than gratuitous, but at least fortunate. The next day we woke up early and trekked down the infamous Angel Trail following mule treks and countless other hikers. We took plenty of water and laughed at all the signs warning illprepared hikers about the dangers of acting tough by trying to hike in desert conditions without sufficient water. We made it half way down (4.5 miles) and back in under 4 hours. Adrian left me behind in his dust on the way back up, as it was getting hot by then mid-day, and I was holding him back with my adult sluggishness. (That little boy has so much trekking energy, he just races up mountains like a mountain goat!) A few more hours of canyon gazing, a couple more sunrises and sunsets, and Adrian was ready to be back in the car again. One of his high lights was seeing all the wildlife along the canyon, including tons of yellow-bellied marmots and even several male deer with racks larger than 4 feet tall!

Our next stop was the Great Salt Lake, otherwise known to Adrian as the stinkiest lake on the planet. The dead fish and salt smells were noxious, but didn't stop me from sinking my body into the salt water for my tourist photo op. Adrian obliged to be photographer, but wouldn't even touch his toes in the stinky water. I remember swimming there as a child with my family and enjoying the salty feel on my skin, but don't remember the smell quite so much. Maybe it's changed a bit, or maybe I just have a kid with a hyper-sensitive nose.

Our final park, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, had the most impressive wild animals of the entire trip, as well as photographic bubling mud displays. The spontaneous bubbling mud baths of various colours and sizes bubbling up throughout the park were more impressive than the predictable Old Geiser, which was smaller in size and all in one place. Adrian took lots of photos with the changing sunlight and walked around dazelike. But then the animals. Within minutes of entering the park, we saw our first bison, also known as the great American buffalo. They are big, hairy monsters that look like something from your nightmare when you meet them on the road. We were close enough to touch one, but fortunately were in our car, and could choose not to touch him, and just take his photo instead. One of Adrian's highlights was a horse trek through the park one morning. He got the ornery horse and had to ride in the front, because his horse kept trying to wander off to eat. We rode through a herd of over 200 elk and deer, including lots of babies and their mothers. Have you ever heard the sound that distressed elk make? It's something like a cross between a coo and a groan. We also saw mule deer with droopy ears, a coyote, 5 more bison, and an American bald eagle on its nest. Stunning wild life everywhere!

One more night spent camping at a KOA in Missoula, Montana, a few hours from where I was born back in 1964, and we arrived in Cranbrook, BC. We'd covered 6000 km in 12 days, and averaged 500 km per day, and spent not a cent on car repairs. Not bad for a mother-son team and a 12 year old car. We also listened to Adrian's iPod for 4 complete cycles of all his tunes. I can sing along with all his Billy Talent alternative rock songs, and sound vaguely cool with the teenagers. Adrian and I really grooved together, except for that 24 hour period around his 12th birthday when he got mad at me for some silly reason and cried himself to sleep that night and wouldn't talk to me for the next whole day. Welcome to the land of teenagers, even though he's only 12. An offer of an extra large chocolate chip cookie dough blizzard at Dairy Queen seemed to break the ice and restore normalacy. Looks like I might be visiting there again in the near future.

Cross Country Trip

The last few months have FLOWN by, but I'll try to catch up over the next couple of weeks, for those of you loyal enough to checking to see where I am. After a short 5 days at home, I dropped Richard off at Pearson Airport to fly to BC, and Adrian and I loaded ourselves with camping gear and the same clothes we trekked across Asia with and headed out. We headed out with an 11 year old car that was almost turning 200,000 km, and hoped for the best. We spent for the first 2 nights in Goshen, IN visiting my parents. Mom was apalled that we'd left home on a road trip without any food in our cooler, so she promptly emptied her fridge into our cooler, and we ate her bread, jam, fruit, buritoes, crackers, and cheese for the next few weeks of our trip. Gotta love Mom!

Our next night was spent just off the highway in Iowa City, Iowa visiting with an old high school friend of mine, Dwight Schumm. Not only was this a convenient stop, but Dwight makes the best Indian food outside the Indian continent and we swapped travel stories with his family regarding their recent family trip to India.

A full 14 hours later, we'd seen countless hours of cornfields and wind turbines, and finally made it through both Iowa and Nebraska. A huge accomplishment in itself. Adrian settled into the road trip, and we listed to our first complete runthrough of his iPod tunes. We crossed just into Colorado and stopped at an RV park just off the road with a great heated pool and free firewood. Adrian was ecstatic. Our first night of camping was smoothe, and we discovered how delicious buritoes over a fire could be, and replicated many more roadside meals like this for the rest of the journey.

The next day we drove a reasonable 5 hours and included a trip up a cog railroad to one of Colorado's many "14,000-ers" (i.e. peaks over 14,000 feet). We hadn't booked in advance, of ourse, so when we showed up, we were on standby for 4 hours, and then finally got on the last train up for the day, only to be told that they'd accidentally overbooked that train by 1 person. Oh well, they had our money, so we insisted they take us, and they did. The train was an uneventful 1 1/2 hr trip, but the top was unfogetably cold. We'd planned ahead with fleece, but our cold legged shorts were freezing, with the temps below 0, even in the middle of summer. We found a classy RV park to camp at that night in Colorado Springs, and even had WiFi, a pool, and free computers, all for the price of a hotel room and our highest fee of the trip, although later I'd heard that Colorado Springs is the national Republican's headquarters, and wished we'd just driven off instead.

Next day brought us to Alburqueque, New Mexico and the home of my sister Kathy. We arrived exactly 2 days before her move to Waterloo, Ontario, but just in time to enjoy her sisterly hospitality and my own bed! She and I stayed up drinking G&T's while Adrian enjoyed flaking out with his computer and being generally anti-social like the teenager he's turning into around others. We skyped with my brother-in-law Roger and video cammed with him in Colorado (or was it California?) as if he was there in the house with us. A lovely meal and a great respite before we headed off to the national parks, relaxed and revived.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spoke too soon

The final 2 days were harder than we'd planned. Both Richard and I were sick for the first time all trip. Richard was only mildly queasy, but I was shooting the toxins out of both ends as fast as I could. It started on the overnight train, and continued through the layover in the airport and onto the long flight home. Not a great way to end a trip, but better than being laid up on the trip itself. It means we didn't see anything in Delhi, since we were too exhausted to leave the airconditioned airport. The only good news was that we had plenty of time at the airport to fight for our plane ticket refunds to get back most of the $500 we had lost at the beginning of the trip with our missed flight saga.

By the time we reached Toronto, we were all happy to be home again. Happy to be wearing different clothes again. Happy to see our friends. Happy to see my overgrown garden thriving with the wet spring, even without my care.

I've spent the last week organizing my photos now, and have finally been able to upload a bunch of photos to go with my word blogs. Feel free to go back and take a look at some of them. I was able to upload all of these photos in less time that I spent trying to get just one photo uploaded in Asia. You gotta love our Canadian high speed internet! If you'd like to see more photos (I have over 1200 :) ) feel free to check out more on my facebook page.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The End of the Trip Now

Unbelievably, we are at the end of our 2 month travelling experience. We slept our last night in a bed until we're in our own beds in a couple of days. Between now and then, we have an overnight train trip back to Delhi, our first train trip in India. Unbeknowst to us, May-June is the Indian school summer holiday period, so Indian families are all travelling themselves, and we've been unable to secure any train tickets. Even the special last minute tourist ones are sold out. We've spent more time in taxis in the last 2 months than Adrian has spent in his entire life combined previously. But given the heat, it's been a relief.

We've landed in India in the middle of an Indian heat wave, and it's impossible to sleep in tiny guest houses without fans or air con. We've had to go "upscale" and pay for the middle budget hotels instead, up to $30 a night, just to be able to cope with the heat. No one really knows the temperature anywhere, but I just googled some sites and found that Varanasi (the town that we were just in) was having temperatures over 50 degrees. Now that's hot!!! I don't know how we're going to get used to Toronto's cool temperatures (only 25 degrees) again.

We're all ready to get home. It's been a fantastic journey, and we are all still talking to each other and still enjoying each others' company. I asked Adrian if he was tired of his mommy and daddy yet, and he said no. He did say he missed plain macaroni and cheese from a box, and can't to get home and make it again. He's really stretched his eating repertoire, but he's ready for some reliable and predictable food again, he says. I just want to eat food that I've cooked for a change, instead of eating out every single meal. And I want to stay put and know where I'll be sleeping the next night.

Of course, our time at home will be short-lived, because Richard will be flying out to BC only 5 days after we land, and Adrian and I will be following him by car a few days later. But that's a million miles in the future. For now, I'm going to head out and enjoy one last meal of tandoori chicken and roti, and do one last kora around the Mahabodhi Temple. Then it's off to Gaya by autorickshaw and hopefully to a relaxed trip back to Delhi.

The next time you'll hear from me, it will likely be from Toronto. Unless Toronto has started having power outages of its own and it takes me a few weeks to get on line from somewhere again. You never know.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Buddhist Circuit

We've covered a lot of territory in the last week, which helps explain my slowness in posting. We left Pokhara for Lumbini by public bus 4 days ago. The bus was hilarious. It left nearly 2 hours late. A woman brought a couple of chickens on the bus in a basket and sat in the aisle with these chickens nipping at my elbow. A few hours later, a grandma got on the the bus, and since all the seats were already taken, she sat down right in my seat and squished me over. Bus seats are not particularly comfortable at the best of times, and now I was sharing a seat with another person. We sat together for 2 hours, sweating away. After she got up, a father tried to get me to hold his daughter for him, but I'd had enough sharing and insisted on having my seat to myself. He found someone else to hold her while he hung out with his buddies.

As we crossed into the Terrai state, we met the Maoist strikers, who stopped all traffic. The bus driver kicked everyone off the bus, and turned around and left for Pokhara. We stumbled around in the heat (44 degrees) with the other tourists trying to figure out what to do. We eventually decided to hire rickshaw bicycles to take us the 2 hours into the next town where we were supposed to be going. We only paid $7 for the ride, and those rickshaw drivers really earned their pay, even though it was probably more than their week's wages.

Once we arrived Lumbini, we visited the first of the 4 famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites - where Buddha was born. The town was really spread out, with lots of international monestaries and pagodas, so we rented bikes and rode around. The heat was intense, but it was all so beautiful.

The next day, we took a 15 hour taxi ride from Lumbini, Nepal down to Varansi, India. We stopped along the way to see Kushinigar- where Buddha died. We had a crazy Indian taxi driver who darted in and out of cars all day, and honked non-stop. I had to close my eyes, because I was sure he was going to hit someone. It was anything but relaxing, but we did cover a lot of territory, despite having to stop and detour around a bunch of election celebrations blocking the roads.

We spent 2 days in Varanasi, and visited both Sarnath - where the Buddha first did his teaching, and Varanasi- site of the famous Ganges River. Sarnath was peaceful, but oh so hot. Varanasi, on the other hand, was insane. Such noise and commotion with so many Indian pilgrims and their families celebrating down at the Ganges River bank at sunset. We saw lots of bathing ghats, as well as cremation ghats. Fortunately, I stayed far away from the river this time and just took pictures (unlike my last visit 15 years ago when I swam in the river and subsequently contracted both giardia and hookworm which stayed with me for over a year, despite many drugs). There were almost as many cows as people down at the ghats, and also people gathering the cow dung to make patties to burn. Mingled with the smells of the men's pissing wall, the smells were overbearing. It's strange to interact with animals so closely, even in cities.

And yesterday we arrived in Bodhgaya - where Buddha achieved enlightenment, again by taxi, after all trains were booked up, even for the tourist quota. Bodhgaya is hot and dusty, but small enough to get around easily on foot. We're indulging in a hotel with a/c, with daily temperatures around 42 or 44. We walk around in the mornings until we're too hot to think, and then head back to the hotel for the afternoon to cool down.

Richard and Adrian have read The Hobbit together, and are now halfway through the first book of the Lord of the Rings. Adrian has never been much of a reader, but somehow he's gotten hooked on this series here, which is almost worth travelling half way around the world for. After looking at Buddhist archeology for a while each day, I guess it gives him a good break. They're hoping to finish this book before we return home now. And just a few more days to go.

Trekking and More Trekking

We arrived in Pokhara ready to do some trekking. We learned quickly that in order to get into the Annapurna region for even one hour of hiking, you have to pay $30Us each. Ouch! So we decided to trek around the region on smaller treks just outside this region, but within view of the snow capped mountains. Our first daytrip, we took the "scenic route" up to see the World Peace Pagoda, and were accompanied by dozens of leeches. Fortunately, they only got on our shoes, and not inside our socks, before we removed them. We had to run through a particularly wet, shaded area because they were everywhere. Adrian was very freaked out by them, but none of them attached on to us, so it wasn't so bad.

The next day at breakfast, we got word of another 2 hour strike, so we rushed to take a taxi up to Naudanda to began a 2 day trek to Sarangkot. Sarangkot has beautiful views of the snow capped mountains, particularly at sunrise (5am). We then hiked along a ridge and took a scenic 6 hour trek down the mountain through rice paddies and farmers' fields. We managed to avoid more leeches, for which we were relieved.

Next time we come to Pokhara, I'd like to do a long trek, but the cost was too high for a family, even in low season, and the fear of leeches and high temperatures was not timely now either. There's always something for next time!

Power Outages

Once again there has been more than a week since my last blog entry, and again, it is for reasons beyond my control. Namely, power outages and more Maoist strikes. We have been shocked by the number of power outages we've experienced in all 3 countries we've visited. We don't think there has been a single day in nearly 2 months of travelling when there wasn't atleast one outage. Some outages only last a few minutes, but many last for hours. Some we notice more than others, because there's no back up and we aren't prepared, but others are while we're in swanky tourist places with generators that kick in seemlessly. We've learned to never go anywhere after dark without a flashlight. I've been stuck in darkness naked in the shower about 5 times so far, and often in outdoor bath houses where I haven't a chance in getting back to my room without a light.

The funny thing is how tolerant the local people are to these outages. Imagine trying to run a business when the power keeps going out. With internet cafes, suddenly you're kicked out and the cafe can't handle any more business. They usually don't charge you for the time before, because they understand you probably lost what you where doing. And the restaurants have very limited menus when the power's out. They can cook food with wood and propane gas, but there's no electricity for blenders and fruit shakes.

We've learned that it's useless to pay extra money for ceiling fans and a/c without first checking whether these are covered by generators or not. If not, it's a waste of money.

Sometimes these power outages are scheduled, and the locals tell us how long the power will be out for. Other times, they surprise everyone. In some places, the power can be off more time than on. Last night in Bodhgaya, the power went out 12 times after 7pm. Each time, the generator kicked in after 1 minute, for lights and ceiling fan, but no tv or a/c. We were trying to watch a movie, which was silly. After another 15 minutes, the power would be back, but not for long. You can't help but get exasperated.

We asked locals what the cause of the power outages were. Burmese people said the Burmese government sells too much power to China for its peak periods, but doesn't care about its own people, who simply don't have enough. Nepalese people blamed the problem on global warming, with a decrease in the amount of water coming during the monsoons, and therefore damaging the hydro dams which provide the majority of electricity for Nepal. And Indians say the problem is too many people putting too much demand on the current system, with the Indian government not paying for infrastructure of more electricity.

All I know is, I'll never complain again about the rare power outages we experience in Canada. I'll also make sure my generator really would work if needed. And maybe I'll see if I can work out some complicated backup system with our used car battery like the Burmese people do. They manage to run tv's and lights and all kinds of things on these cheap back-up plans. Perhaps we'll be in their situation in a few years and I want to be ready.

As for strikes, I thoroughly enjoyed our nearly 3 weeks in Nepal, but I was absolutely relieved to cross the border into India and know that I'd been inconvenienced by my last strike. In total, we'd gotten through 4 strikes in our short time. For the first 2 days we simply walked/trekked instead of taking other options. By the third one, we left early by taxi to arrive before the strike time began. The final one was the worst. We were on a local bus that arrived at the state border of Terrai, a stronghold for them, only to be kicked off the bus, with the bus driver dissappearing instantly with the bus. We eventually arranged for a 2 hour rickshaw ride into the next town, at our expense. All this at 44 degrees in the middle of the day! Apparently strikes go up and down in frequency, but this was rediculous. I can't believe the government tolerates such widespread strikes across entire states and even a country, to shut down all activity. Again, how can people tolerate such interruptions to their business and plans???

Monday, June 8, 2009

Special Opportunities

Travelling as a family for 2 months together provides opportunities or change in subtle ways that are often not predictable. First, there is the gradual opening of Adrian's eating habits. For those of you that know my picky eater, you know that I was a bit worried about how he was going to fill those hollow legs of him while starting the trip disliking rice and anything with flavour and spice. He truly has expanded that repertoir. In Burma, he decided that he finally was starting to like the feeling of spicy chilis on his tongue, and the subsequent tears it brings. He and Richard regularly now have chili eating competetitions. Richard wins, but he also wins the hiccuping contests that come with eating chilis for him. A surprising favourite food of Adrian's has been "buff momos", as in Tibetan steamed dumplings filled with spicy minced water buffalo meat. Many restaurants in Asia also have spaghetti or macaroni on the menu, but he's found these can be hit or miss, and sometimes are scarier to him than the Tibetan standards. He threatens to return to his limited eating when he returns home, but I'm not sure that it's possible to close the food door once it's opened. At least that's what I'm hoping!

As for my relationship with Adrian, I can't believe how much on the cusp of adolescence this boy of mine is. Some days he seems like an adult, or at least as much so as Richard and I on vacation! We have yet to meet any other children on vacation with their parents, so he hangs out exclusively with adults, except for occasional interactions with local children. Because of his height, the locals invariably think he's older than he is, and he's had his share of teen age girls fawning and falling in love with him who are probably 14 or even 18 years old. They don't seem to believe us when we tell them he's only 11. He even got to join us in a club one night in Kathmandu when we decided to check out a live band. He sat there sipping his Fanta, but otherwise was one of the gang, despite his annoyance at the man at the next table blowing his cigarette smoke on him.

But then the next minute he is my little innocent boy. On many of our long treks, he walks hand in hand with either me or Richard, something he quit doing in Toronto many years ago. (I even have a few photos to prove it!) As soon as we see people or get into town, he's independent again, but he really likes the physical connection. And it seems natural, considering that in the last 6 weeks, we have spent only minutes apart from each other, maybe only 3 hours in total, and that includes sleeping. Every night so far we've all shared one room, so he falls asleep with us and wakes up to us, and really seems happy with this. We laugh, we talk, and over and over he asks me to tell him stories about himself. What his birth was like, how old he was when he learned to skate, how I taught him to ride a bike, a review of all his life moments. This trip is more than just what we're seeing in the countries we're visiting.

Of course, this intense togetherness is also changing my relationship with Richard, and in a good way. As any of you know who know me, I'm a fiercely independent person who really likes doing things for herself. And yet, here in Asia, I'm learning to play the role of "wife". Learning to hang back and let Richard take care of me, while I stand with Adrian. When we arrive at a new town and the touts are hussling us to get us into their taxis, I simply smile and say my husband is taking care of this decision, and they leave us alone. It's really quite freeing! So while it's a role I'm developing for the outside world, it's also a way of helping me stop being so dominant. So bossy and pushy. During my meditation retreat, I realized what a poor listener I was. It's hard to be both a good listener and pushy at the same time. Richard doesn't always like having to step up and take charge when the situation is difficult, but actually he's pretty good at it. He's more engaged in life, and so we're more engaged with each other too. It's a good cycle. We've been having great conversations about our 14 years together, actually getting around to touching on some of those tough conversations that we never have time for in Toronto. And through all the travelling, we're laughing tons and really enjoying each other's company. I'll speak for myself, and say that we really haven't fought or disagreed or really been ugly with each other for 6 weeks straight. Maybe we should do travelling full time! We don't seem to get tired of each other, even when we're 24/7.

I feel really blessed. This trip has been more than I hoped for. I'm sad that we weren't able to make it to Tibet, but other than this regret which only leaves something open for the future, I'm happy and content and think this is my best travel experience yet. In the past, I've mostly travelled alone, but I love having someone around me all the time to share my experiences. I love my family. Asia has been the mind-blowing opportunity for Adrian I had hoped it would be, and travelling independently has really hooked Richard in a way that I think is paving the way for our future years together. Enough waxing poetically, it's time to kiss this cyber cafe goodnight and head back to the hotel, before we lose power again and this blog fades into the ether.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Chitwan National Park

We couldn't turn down the chance to do an Nepalese safari to Chitwan National Park, so here we are. My first ever safari! We arrived on Monday afternoon to a surprisingly quiet village of Sauraha, just outside of the park. It's almost monsoon season, so there's very few tourists around, and the hotels and lodges are getting ready to close up shop for a few months. We chose a small budget resort that looks an awful lot like our thatched roof cabana in Tulum last March. There are palm trees everywhere, and the highest humidity that we've experienced yet. But the village is set along a river and is very compact, so we can easily walk around everywhere.

Our first morning here, we woke up at 5:30 am to pouring rain, so our first safari was cancelled. We enjoyed a sleep in instead, and then made it down to the river to watch the elephants bathe. This is quite the experience, because tourists are invited to sit on the backs of the elephants while the elephant trainers shout commands to the elephants. Commands like "spray the tourist with your trunk" or "roll over and dump the silly tourist into the river". Both Adrian and I joined in the fun, while Richard stayed on the sidelines playing photographer. We starteed out going together, but also rode the elephants on our own. Elephant skin is spiky and hairy, but surprisingly smooth. It's fun being thrown into the water, and then grabbing onto the ears to pull oneself back onto the elephant. Elephants also get scratched with brushes to keep them clean and feel better, but mostly this event is about getting the tourist wet.

In the afternoon, we made a safari into the park with a guide, first as sitters in a flat-bottomed row boat, and then as walkers. We saw many small animals like monkeys, a crocodile, deer, some large form of squirrel/rodent, and many. many birds, including a peacock and kingfishers, but not the elusive rhinos or tigers. The sounds and smells of the jungle were enchanting nonetheless.

This morning, we woke up at 5:30 to a overcast but dry day, so we started out on our elephant riding safari into a community forest buffer zone just outside of the actual park. We rode 3 of us in a basket sitting on top of an elephant, with the driver sitting just in front of us. Believe it or not, it was pretty comfortable, except for the frequent tail slaps on my toes. And this time we saw the rhinos, and very close up, only 2 metres away! Because wewere on an elephant's back and rhinos have poor eyesight, it was safe. The rhinos didn't ever try to move away from us as we got close to get photos. First we saw a daddy, mommy, and a baby rhino family, which is appropriate considering our little family of 3. They stayed mostly in the water, but we got very close to them. Next we came accross another rhino, and this time he got out of thewater so we could see how massie he was. Not quite as large as an elephant, but close. We also saw 10 deer, a monkey, and lots of birds again, especially beautiful blue ones. Pretty stunning!

We've got one more afternoon here, and we hope to visit the elephant breeding centre on bikes where there is a pair of baby twins, the first ever in captivity, and another baby only a few weeks old. And then we've been tourist long enough and we pack our bags and head to Pokhara to do some more trekking. It's been fun on this safari!!!

(I would try to upload some of my photos of this part of the trip, but the internet connection is pretty slow here and it doesn't seem to work. I may need to wait till I get home to add the photos.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Kathmandu Scene

In general, we've been really impressed with the places we've visited. Kathmandu, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. I visited here 15 years ago when I was young and single, and thought it was one of the greatest places on earth. This time, it seems overly touristy, over priced, and not so interesting. The downtown Thamel part, that is. Plenty of Pashmina shawls to buy and tiger balm hawkers, but that's all. The first hotel we stayed at was so noisy and had mosquitos, not to mention the hardest bed and pllow of our trip. And there are no Tibetans here, and no Buddhist souvenirs. So we decided to make our purchases quickly and head out.

We spent the first day bargaining for a thanka, a Tibetan painting. Richard and I had decided to indulge ourselves in one thanka as our major purchase on this trip, and our only visa card purchase. After shopping around all day, we settled on a really high quality mandala painting designed by the Dali Lama. If you come to visit our home when we return, it should be in our living room as a daily reminder of this wonderful trip.

The next day was very unusual. There was a country-wide strike by the Maoists. The essentially demanded that all stores stay closed, and requested that there be no wheels on any roads. No bikes, no rickshaws, no cars, no motorbikes, nothing. So, what could we do? We walked, of course, to a temple only 3 kms out of the city, perched on a hill. We'd been planning to visit the Swayambunath Temple, but this seemed like the best day, with the city streets desserted of vehicles.

This is the classic Kathmandu temple with the 2 eyes and what looks like a nose but is really the Nepalese number 1 that look out at you from 4 sides. It's quite distict, and has a really nice vibe there. This temple is also known as the Monkey Temple, because of all the monkeys that live in the trees around the temple. Adrian fell in love with these critters, and we could barely pull him away at the end of the day. He loved watching their silly antics, and how they drank juice from garbage juice boxes, and teased each other. He especially loved the mommies and their little babies, who clung to the mommies for dear life as the mommies jumped around and dug through garbage looking for food. These weren't the scary monkeys of India, and these had seemed to have gotten used to the people around them, especially since many people feed them directly or simply leave them garbage.

At the end of the day, we decided to check out th Durbar Square, on a day when we didn't need to pay the hefty ($7.50 US for foreigners each) fee. What we didn't realize was that we also walked straight into the square where the Maoists were demonstrating. We tried to lay low, and did escape without notice, but there were huge crowds, all chanting and waving wooden batons around. They were harrassing anyone with wheels, but they left us alone.

We were happy to wake up today to a little noise and see that life was back to normal on the street and the strike was over. So we rented bikes for the day and our new friend, the thanka salesman, took us for a bike ride out of the city up to the top of a hill to view another new temple and monestary. It was the most stunning aray of Tibetan buildings we have seen yet. Beautiful colours and designs, all made by sculpting cement and then painting.

The ride back, however, was during rush hour, and I have never heard so many honking horns and seen such chaos. Even at busy intersections, they mostly operate like 4 way stops, only with bikes, cars, motorcycles, rickshawa, and pedestrians all competing for space. Adrian was a little freaked out, and it shows what a fantastic cyclist he is that he could even manage it. And without a helmet, of course. Richard got knocked once by a motocyclist a bit, but otherwise we managed unscathed. Quite the experience! I'll nver worry about Adrian navigating the Toronto bike lanes ever again.

Trekking in Nagarkot

After a few relaxing days in Bodhanath, we were ready for some mountain vistas. We hired a taxi to drive us up to a Nepalise weekend getaway. It's only 28 km from Kathmandu, but it's over 1000 metres higher (around 2100 m) and took 4 hours to drive. We did make a small detour to visit a particular temple en route, but Adrian calculated the drive to be about 7 km/hour. I have never seen a road in such terrible condition, even in India. There wasn't close to one lane that had solid pavement, and trafic was 2 way. The entire road was filled with rocks and potholes, and yet no one seems to complain. They are such a tolerant folk.

Upon arriving, we decided to splurge on a mid-range resort ($20 US) at the very top of the mountain. It was clearly quite a nice resort once, but hadn't had any maintenance in many years, and everything was dusty and crumbling. The view was stunning! We had clear skies at both sunsets and sunrises for 2 days, even though we had to get up at 5 am to see the sunrise. We could see the entire Himilayan mountain range on one side, including Everest in the distance, and the Kathmandu Valley on the other side. The Himalyans are snow-capped this time of year and appear very sureal, as they are so high in the sky we originally thought they were only clouds!

The first day we just daytrekked around the area. We did a 4 hour trek to Katikke and Sankhu, winding down through villages on walking trails. The terrain was very steep, and we walked lots of switchbacks.

When we returned to our hotel, they were filming a Nepalese music video. We got to watch the dancer part and hear the same Nepalese pop song repeated over and over. There's a real Asian esthetic about the pop music, very much like we heard in Burma, and same in Japan, but I can't say that I can fully appreciate it.

The last day, we woke up early and decided to walk back to Kathmandu. We started by walking to a watch tower in the middle of an army training camp. Adrian was a little freaked out to see a bunch of soldiers training in the middle of the road with guns slung over their shoulders and yelling orders and slugging bags of sand around for practice. He was more enamored with their obstacle course training.

After this, we just walked straight down, looking for lots of short cuts through farmers fields. By doing this, we met Raj, a 14 year old orphan, who offered to show us more shortcuts and guide us down into the valley. He was a great resource for us, since he knew all the locals, and they let us walk through their fields. He spoke great English and told us he learned it 1 hour a day at school, and that he really wanted to use it, but he lived too far away from more tourist areas to ever use it. We walked for 5 hours with him, not quite all the way back but he walked us to a local bus station and helped us take the city bus the final couple of kilometres. We would never have made it down the mountain so quickly, not found the right bus without him. We arrived back in Bodhanath with tired feet, but really it didn't take much more time than when we taxied it!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tibetan Village of Bodhanath

After the long flight to get here, we were happy to settle into this tiny village of Bodhanath. We were recommended to come here instead of Thamel, the downtown centre of Kathmandu that is overly touristy. We love it here! Basically we've been seeking out the Tibetan centres of India and Nepal, and finding ourselves most at home there. Not that we're Tibetan, but Tibetans seem to bring some cleanliness and order to wherever they go, and for any of you who have spent any time in India or Nepal, you know that these country could use more cleanliness and order! The Tibetans set up guesthouses for reasonable rates (usually only $8 a night for the 3 of us, or $10 if Adrian is dying for a little tv time), great Tibetan restaurants with a little Italian food for the kids, and make sure everything stays safe, cleanand friendly. We love the "Hello" and "Tashi Delek" we hear shouted at us from every young kid.

We haven't done a lot here, except soak in the atmosphere and walk around the central stupa. Every night the entire community comes out to walk a kora (3 times around, in a clockwise direction) between work and dinner, between 6-7pm. We join in, and feel a part of it.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Cyclone Detour

Our final 3 days in Yangon were spent soaking wet, with the winds and rain of Cyclone Aila pounding the city. Unfortunately, we couldn't do much around the city, although we did venture out one day with unbrellas for a tour of the down town during a brief interlude, only to be soaking wet in an hour anyway.

We left Yangon hoping for a break in the weather. Instead, we got a Cyclone detour, as Cyclone Aila decided to come in land and pound Kolkata, our next flight destination. What should have been a short 2 hour flight turned into a long10 ordeal. The flight left 3 hours late from Yangon, because the first plane was unflyable. Two hours into the flight, they announced an emergency landing in Chennai (Madras), in the south of India, and 4 hours away. From there they made us wait in the airplane until 11:30 pm. Even then, the pilot announced that we would leave and "maybe" we would be able to land in Kolkata, and "maybe" we would have to turn around again. He didn't instill much confidence! The only food they provided us with was yucky-tasting peanuts, dry crackers, and mini-bottled waters. Finally at midnight, we got dinner.

Unfortunately, by the time we landed in Kolkata, it was 1:30 am, and our pre-booked hotel had already given our room away. Everyone was stranded in Kolkata. We walked past many trees that had been downed from the cyclone, but it was no longer raining. We woke up 4 night watchmen, but everything was full, so we wandered back to the airport and slept there. I found a special room for "ladies", and Adrian and I slept on benches there, away from the glare and noise outside. Unfortunately, Richard didn't catch a wink that night.

The next day, our next plane was delayed again, but finally we flew at 2:30 pm. By 4pm, we were finally in Nepal. Yippee!

Fun in Nyaungschwe

After fighting the heat in the south, we were happy to take an easy 45 minute flight to the cool temperatures of Nyaungschwe. It's in the north of Burma, and the trees and low mountains make it much cooler this time of year. This is almost the rainy season, so there are few guests, and we almost had our run of the town. We loved how easy it was to get around in this small village, which has almost no personal cars, only pedestrians, motorcycles, taxis, and horse carts.

This area is set up for active folks like us on a budget. We spent the first day cruising around Inle Lake in a (loud!) motorized boat with a friendly guide. He showed us local fishermen catching fish with nets and spears, women weaving textiles from lotus flower stems, and traditional silversmiths. We felt like royalty riding in this long boat sitting in adirondack chairs with our umbrellas to shade the sun. I could have ridden all day, and in fact we did!

The next day, we took a 2 day trek into the local Pa-O hill tribe with a wonderful guide who spoke great English. He used to be a forester, so he could answer all our questions about the trees and rocks and animals. He also showed us how the local men concrete out of the local limestone rocks. We trekked 23 km the first day, and got to take in a hill festival of 7 villages complete with drumming, dancing, and drinking rum in the middle of the day. We ate our meals (made by the guide) in local village houses. We spent the night on mats in a village house under mosquito nets. Adrian played with the kids' animals (baby kittens, dogs, goats). The next day we only had to hike 12 km down to get back down to the village.

Our final day there we had our guide organize a motorcylce ride (each of us riding on the back of 3 motorcylces) to a local hot spring for bathing with other villages. We then got a private tour at the only winery in Burma. The vintner spoke good English and enjoyed opening up about 9 of his wines to us to try. He's trying to promote wine drinking in Burma, but really it's a beer or rum culture. For the afternoon, we did a horse trek up to some caves. Adrian really like horse riding, except when the horse nipped at his toes, or leaned too far forward coming down the mountain.

Every night we ate dinner at a different restraurant, and each night, we were the only ones there. Too bad, because we had beautiful weather and really liked the villagers. They say tourism was just taking off 3 years ago when the the protests began, and then last year they had Cyclone Nargis, so tourism is really slow.

If anyone reading this is interested in a unique holiday, maybe something similar to what they used to think Thailand was, Burma is the place to visit. We love it!!!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mon State Celebreties

We arrived on May 11 into Yangon, exhausted, but happy to be there. We spent a day relaxing and checking in with our friends at the Dot Pon Zon Monestery whom we had met in 2002. We got to spend time with the Sayadaw there, who is 97 years old and doing well for his age. He used to travel lots, and now he's bedridden, but generally healthy and fun to speak with through a translator.

The monestery arranged for us to visit the native village of the Sayadaw, Krokpi, in Mon State. We were escorted by 3 monks on the over night aircon bus, and given snacks along the way to go with the blaringly loud and obnoxious Burmese comedys and sitcoms that ran on the dvd player all through the night. We got to stay in the monestery down there on mats and covered with mosquito nets. A group of monestery ladies cooked 3 meals a day for us. Adrian especially loved the way they hovered over us as they fed us fantastic spreads of local seafood, local fresh fruits (mangostein, jack fruit, rambutan, mango, pineapple), vegetables, and sweets, including fanning us with hand fans to keep the flies away as we ate. They also figured out Adrian's picky eating habits and prepared special foods for just him, like fried chicken, potatoes, rice, and french toast. They truly made us feel like kings and queens! And all for free, or course. We made a donation to the monestery when we left, but they really can teach us a lot about generousity.

We spent 3 days with them, and each day, the Sayadaw had arranged for "field trips" involving us and 2 full pickups of local persons. Once day we visited his "tower", a massive metal structure at the top of the highest point in the village, that you can climb and get a great view. It reminded Adrian of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but not as high. All buildings in Mon are made of concrete or wood, so this metal structure was clearly influenced by the Sayadaw's western travels. Another day we visited an ancient monestery nearby to see Richard's old friend, U Agi, the builder of pagodas that Richard travelled with in 2000 (Winnipeg, Edmonton, and South Africa). On the last day, we went to the Burmese seaside. Richard and Adrian swam in the waves, while everyone else looked on. Burmese people rarely swim. They don't seem to know the idea of a fresh water swimming pool, and are intimidated by the salty waves of the rocky Sea of Bengal that is their coast.

Burmese people in general are super friendly and generous, but when you have friends of friends, they really go over board. We met so many people around the town. One man who had spent time in an Indian Boarding school as a child became our unofficial translator for 3 days and followed us everywhere. When I got 5 spider bites during my first night, I visited the local doctor's clinic (the doctor's wife is one of the cooking ladies) and was treated with antibiotics and a dressing, free of charge, of course. We also met a school teacher who invited us to her classroom. We talked about Canada and tried to get them to ask us questions about Canada, but mostly they were too shy. Its not their custom to ask questions, especially not in English. All the girls had huge crushes on Adrian, poor boy, and giggled around him lots. He's only 11 years old and not interested in girls yet, but he looks like he's 16 to them, and taller than most of their fathers already.

It was a bit exhausting to be such celebreties, and to have people around us non-stop, but it was also exactly what we were looking for- a real slice of Burma. We didn't talk about politics at all, but we did get to make a real heart connection with these people. When we left, they loaded us up with cigars, necklaces, and mon longyi (wrap around skirts for men and women). I already miss that fantastic food!

Playing Catch Up

Did I fall off the planet somewhere near Dharamsala? Well, not exactly, but close. Two stories, one at a time.

First, we were in Dharamsala having a wonderful time hanging out in this funky little Tibetan town. We spent a few relaxed days at the Sherabling Monestery nearby with our friend Michael, the uber-relaxed yogi friend from Canada who's been staying in India off and on for 20 years. We got to see the ancient Padmasambava caves and a beautiful lake. We were enjoying eating mutton momos (dumplings), and I even took a cooking course to learn to make them at home. On Saturday we got to meet both the 17th Karmapa and the Dalai Lama in the same day. All was well, until we realized we'd somehow "lost" a day in our planning, and were supposed to be at the airport in Delhi on Sunday, not Monday, to fly to Kolkata in order to be ready for the once-a-week only Monday flight to Burma. Oops! Without blaming each other too much, we quickly bought new airplane tickets to Kolkata, tore up our overnight train tickets, and booked a 12 hr taxiride (in a luxury SUV, no less) to Delhi. We call it the $500 mistake, and have decided to assign Adrian the task of keeping us informed of days of the week. He's doing a much better job! Believe it or not, it did all come together and we made our flight to Yangon on Monday May 11 as planned. I planned to write about Dharamsala on Sunday, but instead I was too busy panicking.

Secondly, when we arrived in Yangon finally, we discovered that not only Facebook, but also all social networking sites are denied access, including Adrian's and my blogs. So no way to catch up. We were able to hack in to Facebook a couple of times during our 2 weeks in Burma, thanks to creative techies there, but they weren't able to get us into the blogs. So here I am playing catch up. Be patient as I try to squeeze in the time now that I'm in Kathmandu.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Our Sleeping Berth

Adrian at the Eiffel Tower

Monet's Gardens

The LOOONG Busride

We decided to go cheap and meet the locals, and take the overnight bus up the road to Dharamsala. The picture of the bus was brand new and they said it was air conditioned, so it sounded relaxing. Instead, we got an old bus and before we even started, we had police hassles looking for a bribe, and they delayed us for nearly 3 hours. Eventually we got a different bus, and we all switched. The new bus didn't have a/c but it did have a few sleeping berths, which were really just flat beds up in the luggage racks. I crawled into one squished along side of Adrian and settled in for sleeping. Unfortunately, a few hours later we got to the border of the Himashal Pradesh state, and had to change busses once more, because they don't allow sleeping busses in their winding roads. So back to a regular bus with seats.

Ok, this had to be it, but then an hour later, we stopped again, this time for dinner. It was midnight, and this was our first food stop, only 4 hours later than the time we'd been promised. Nonetheless, we ate well, tasting some interesting Indian dishes that we had to guess at from the menu. The next 6 hours were pretty uneventful, but not full of much sleep. The temperature had definitely dropped, it was starting to rain, and we were freezing. Our warm clothes and shoes were all packed in the bottom of our backpacks, thinking we wouldn't need them again till Toronto. We huddled together to keep warm and all dozed occasionally.

And of course we had another stop for breakfast. By now the view was incredible, with houses built right into the mountains, and the road reduced to a 1 lane road with hairpin turns. We probably travelled only 50 km in the final4 hours, and arrived in MacLeod Ganj 16 hours later than we'd departed. A little cold and damp, tired, but ready to get out and walk around.

We found a nice, clean guesthouse and set out looking for food. Prayer flags flapped in the breeze everywhere around us, and we felt like we'd been transported to the magical land of Tibet, with Buddhist monks everywhere and friendly Tibetan people. Tibetans certainly have a lot to teach Indians about cleanliness and environmental concerns, and there are signs everywhere encouraging these ideas. The vibe is definitely friendly, and there are plenty of foreigners mixed in with Indians, Tibetans, and monks.

After a 3 hour nap, we felt refreshed and ready to explore. We trekked to the next town (Dharamkot) this afternoon and enjoyed the mountain views, as well as the antics of the many monkeys. We had our first dinner of Tibetan momos and tsingmo with mutton gravy. Excellent!! Adrian found pasta and pizza, so he indulged in both, and fattened up for the next few days when he might not find any more western food. We plan to move farther into the mountains tomorrow and to rest up there a few days before we tackle the return bus trip to Delhi next Sunday.

From Luxury to Cacophony

(You would have read this yesterday, but a power outage in the cyber cafe I was writing in crashed all my efforts, and the cafe never recovered all evening. So I'll try again.)

From the cultural superiority of Paris to the cacophony of Delhi, India. In one long flight, we arrived into Delhi on Sunday evening to a 37 degree heatwave. I have never been so happy to pick out a taxi pickup sign for "The Clark Family" from amongst the 300 other signs. Out taxi driver managed to navigate us out of the bustling energy of the airport (after we cleared customs for Canadians, who are at risk for swine flu, and required a special form to be let in; everyone wore masks who talked to us) and onto the highway. The weaving in and out, driving with no lights, constant honking, and avoiding the frequent barricade obstacles that divert traffic through the immense construction on the highway was enough to keep us awake, despite the time of 1 am. Adrian enjoyed seeing the 6 elephants and cow that accompanied us on the highway, along with all the mini cars and families on motorcycles.

In Delhi, we stayed in "Little Tibet" an area that has Tibetan refugees clearly running all the hotels and shops. Our hotel for the night cost us only $9, but we were clearly sharing the rent with the local mosqitoes, and I got quite a few bites. We found a great little coffee shop and an internet cafe, and were starting to settle in when it was time to take the overnight bus up north to the mountains of Dharamsala, a place known for being much cooler, as well as being the larger Tibetan Refugee colony in India, and home to the Dalai Lama. That would be a ride to remember.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Travelling around Paris

We've had a busy couple of days in Paris cramming in as much sight seeing and wandering as we can. Viewing the Eiffel Tower by night, bicycling from Vernon to Giverny to view Monet's maginificant gardens, listening to mass in the Notre Dame Cathedral, touring the massive Palace of Versailles, ogling at the rose window in the Chartre Cathedrale, and catching a juggling/comedy show outside the Pompedou Museum. We've walked 20 km per day and eaten countless baguettes, and are truly enjoying ourselves. We've taken hundreds of photos, but are so busy that we collapse into bed every night without posting any, despite the free internet in the hotel. Adrian's beginning to understand the quickly spoken French and loving it here. We've only scratched the surface of things to do, but already Richard is packing us up to leave tomorrow for India. Next blog will be from India.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

First day in Paris

It's been a long 39 hour day, but we've landed safely in Paris. Oversea flights are nothing like domestic Air Canada flights, and we all loved the food and non-stop entertainment options. We arrived in Parid at 6 am, made our way to our hotel near Montparnasse, and headed out to explore Paris for the day. We must have walked 20 km exploring the Champs Elisses (sp), the Arc de Triumph, and eventually the Eiffel Tower. Adrian was quite the trooper, provided I kept him supplied with a steady supply of chocolate croissants and baguettes. My brother-in-law David not only provided excellent translation services for us, but also provided in depth historical accounts of everything we were looking at, having visited Paris before on numerous occasions and being a natural history buff. The archetecture here is inspiring, the green space refreshing, and the people generally quite friendly. Everything is extremely expensive of course, but we are loving the European charm. My only complaint is this French keyboard that takes forever to master, so pqrdon any ,istakes;

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Plans for Asia

Unbelievable! In less than 24 hours we'll be on the plane heading for Paris. We, that is, myself, Richard, and Adrian. This constantly evolving journey has us planning to spend 4 days in Paris on a layover to Delhi. The European part of this trip was the last vestage of our original plan to spend 2 months in Europe. Adrian didn't want to give up his dream of seeing the Eiffel Tower and speaking French for his parents, so we kept 4 days in Paris. We'll be flying over and spending those days with Richard's brother, David, who is enroute to his own "vacation". He'll be spending a month walking the "Camino de Compostella de Santiago" pilgrimage between France and Spain.

After this brief resting spot, we'll carry on to India. We have nearly 2 months to travel throughout Asia. We have some bones of the trip set with flights and hotel reservations, but there's lots of room to wander at will. We plan to spend a week in the mountains north of Delhi near Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives. Then we fly to Burma (our second family trip there) for 2 weeks. Surprisingly, we have a lot of contacts here, and anticipate seeing some old friends from our last trip, in particular the 100 year old teacher of my Buddhist teacher's teacher. From here, we fly to Kathmandu and decide which treks to take. We're still debating between treks in Tibet, Nepal and India, so stay tuned for which ones we choose. (If you've been there yourself and you have some advice or suggestions, please comment, and quickly!). Adrian's keen to to see some real mountains, and we're all curious how we'll be as the altitude quickly climbs up, up, up.

We need to be back by June 20, so Adrian can graduate grade 6 with the rest of his class a few days later. So with backpacks small enough that we're hoping to be able to carry on with us onto planes, off we go tomorrow towards our great adventure. We anticipate having internet access along the way, except for within Burma, so stay tuned for updates.

What was it Like for my Family???

So it's all good and well that I went off for 2 months and had an interesting mind experience of my own. But what was it like for my family I left behind? How did they cope?

Well it took Richard 2 weeks to realize that Adrian hadn't had a shower, despite the fact that it was hockey season and Adrian was skating nearly every day and getting plenty sweaty. So he gently suggested one. Adrian thought about it for a bit, apparently, and then, miracle of miracles, he decided that he'd better not wait for anyone else's suggestions anymore, and would start taking a shower every other day, even without a reminder. Now I have been waiting for this moment for about 1 years, and I never suspected that I needed to get totally out of the way to make it happen. But the moment has passed, and he's not going back, so now I have an independently clean and sweet smelling young man, in addition to being the warm and wonderful kid that I used to love him for beeling.

As for the cooking and cleaning while I was gone, well, the house didn't quite look like it does when I'm around, but really it wasn't too bad. The 2 bachelors did quite well together. They split the added chores. Adrian learned how to wash his own laundry (he's since forgotten again how to do it). Richard managed the hockey chaufeuring duties with the dishes and lunch making and school note signing and the grocery shopping. He says his bass guitar playing was a lot less during these 2 months, but other than that, he got along quite fine. Perhaps he just used the time he usually spends listening to me talk about my job or my friends' love lives to be more productive.

Any way, when I got home, I realized that Adrian had grown another inch while I was gone and was clearly being well fed by someone. He had even had a couple of mornings where he had to wake himself up by alarm clock, eat his breakfast alone, and then walk himself to school on his own on mornings when Richard had to work early. And Richard had managed to find a fantastic AAA hockey team for Adrian.

So all in all, I was thrilled to come home, listen to their stories, and realize that they don't really need me as much as I thought they did. They did very well indeed without me. It was good for everyone. This is a good lesson for me!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Meditate?

I've been asked by many people why I took 2 months to do a meditation retreat. In fact, why do I spend time meditating at all? The answer is pretty clear to me. Meditation is a great way to get to know myself. And the more I know myself, the closer to my potential that I can reach. Meditation is really about slowing down the external influences to the point where I can see who I am. Remove the contact with my family, and I see who I am in the roles I play with my family. I see how I play "mommy" and "partner". You can't see something when you're so close to it and constanting acting in the role. So with meditation, you don't set out to make changes, but when you see yourself as you really, you do make changes, but that happens naturally when you see things.

Meditation is a lot like therapy, except with therapy there's a starting point that things are wrong. In meditation, you start out in a neutral place of just wanting to see what is, and then from there you decide whether it's helpful to be a certain way or not, and adjust if you want to. And you give yourself the space to break out of patterns which often feel so set in stone that you think you'll never be able to change, but then you do. You can only do this by slowing everything down to a speed that allows you time to look at it. Hence, the silence rule. No talking except in class or with the teacher. In the silence, the mind slows down to a peaceful pace, just right for observing thoughts and feelings. For big-time talkers like myself, I get fast results from closing my mouth and listening more. Listening to my repetetive thoughts and feeling my repetetive feelings. 2 months is a long time. Plenty of time to watch cycles of thoughts and feelings. I realized that I truly am a moody person, who cycles through feelings and moods, even when I'm having no contact with anybody. Just me, and still there's moods. They're fun to watch from a point of equinimity. Like old friends.

Back in the city, I'm trying to find time to stay connected to this pace. To spend some time each day just chilling. Just sitting, not waiting, but listening. Listening to whatever is going on in this rich imaginiation of mine we call "my mind". Try it!